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Parlee Cycles profile
By Christopher Fauske
Date: 12/11/2009
Parlee Cycles profile

Parlee Cycles profile
”You will not see unnecessary shapes in my designs.”

Additional reporting by John Vogel

It’s as good a reason as any to start building bikes commercially. “He was buying nicer and nicer bikes,” says Isabel Parlee of her husband Bob, “and it got to the stage where he couldn’t find a bike as good as he wanted.” For most people, that would represent the end point of their quest, but Bob Parlee had twenty years experience under his belt as a boat builder, as a designer and builder of surf boards, and centerboards and keels, the various components that help a boat run smoothly (and fast) through the water.

What those various parts all had in common was that they were made out of carbon fiber, still an emerging technology but one that had been increasingly well proved in the field. So Parlee took his design and construction skills and built himself a bike. More than that, he built himself a company.

Isable Parlee, Bob Parlee, and Tom Rodi (left to right).

Photo © 2009 John Vogel

The premise was simple, Parlee says, with carbon you can engineer a bike that is lighter, stronger, and more responsive. Which is what Parlee Cycles is still all about, he stresses. In the company’s catalog, and in conversation on the shop floor in Peabody, MA, the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Parlee and Tom Rodi, Parlee’s chief builder, stress one word repeatedly “efficiency.” The company’s focus, Parlee and Rodi maintain, is on what works. “I am not a stylist,” Parlee says proudly, “I am a designer and builder of race bikes. You will not see unnecessary shapes in my designs.”

Rodi talks of going to Interbike and Eurobike every year “wondering what I’ll see that is really going to surprise me,” and it’s just not happening on the design front. Parlee adds once again that “it’s about performance. We design to a characteristic we want,” or, as Rodi says, it’s about “not having styling gimmicks, doing dumb things just so you end up with a light frame.”

Purpose-designed and built drop outs.

Photo © 2009 John Vogel

Weight matters to riders, of course, and the main bone of contention in the Parlee shop these days seems to be about the weight of the Z5 frame. “It’s under 900 grams,” Isabel Parlee says, showing off a frame in the cluttered office. “Our tubes are mitered because we can’t weld. We put layers and layers of carbon around the joints. They look like lugs but they’re not. There are no glue lines; it’s carbon to carbon.” All of which the folks on the floor are happy to agree with except for the weight of the frame. “They’ll tell you it’s 800 grams,” Isabel Parlee says, and, sure enough, they do. The catalog, for the record, lists the weight as “775g – 875g.”

That 100g discrepancy is the result of variable tube length and the amount of carbon wrapped to make the joints. Parlee has had a long relationship with Edge Composites and uses Edge Composite carbon tubes as the raw material for frame building. Parlee does not use any lugs or butt joints in their frame construction and relies on carbon fabric supplied by a company in Vermont pre-cut to Parlee’s specifications and pre-impregnated with resin. The cost of the machines required to prepare the carbon sheets and impregnate the resin is such, Rodi says, “that we’d have to be running them all day and night to justify the cost,” and Parlee is about frame building not industrial production.

It is this philosophy, too, that means the company does not supply built bikes. You get a frame, fork, and head set. “There are plenty of component manufacturers out there,” Parlee says, “and they know what they’re doing.”

Where it all begins.

Photo © 2009 John Vogel

Also, people who order a Parlee bike tend to have a pretty good idea what they want in terms of components.

Other components, the little bits we tend not to think of much, if at all, receive the close scrutiny of Parlee and his team. For example, those 25 cent cable stops that are screwed into your bike frame are not something you’ll find on a Parlee because, as Rodi point out, “any time you screw something into carbon, you’re cutting a fiber and that weakens the structure. Then you’ve got to find some way to compensate for the weakness.” There’s no stock part out there that will work, so Parlee molds its own cable stops.

Every frame and accessory that is molded at Parlee is molded on site using custom built alloy castings with silicon liners. Parlee pours their own temperature sensitive silicon that provides consistent pressure and precise heat dispersion across mitered joints in the bonding process. This proprietary integration of technological innovation and handmade artistry produce both a reliably strong finish with the flexibility to personalize frame angles, tube lengths, and ride characteristics through custom lay-ups. Each silicon mold liner has a lifespan of about 8 heating and cooling cycles before it is discarded. Over the years, Parlee has built an extensive library of alloy molds to form a wide range of frame angles and, at this point, only rarely needs to manufacture a completely unique casting.

Tubes arrive cut to standard sizes, but once a bike is commissioned they are mitered to the custom size required by the spec and finished to less than a 1mm of leeway, cut with diamond tipped saws and then secured with carbon from the sheets with a finish that is “as close as or closer than Tig welding,” says Parlee. “There is intimate contact for all the tubes, offering reinforcement but it’s also stronger, less bulky, lighter. We can alter the amount of carbon material in each wrap” to adjust for the buyer’s expectations. “The magic formula is heat and pressure,” Parlee says. The carbon sheets are stored in a standard household freezer at 32 degrees and molded to shape on the frame at 250 degrees.

“People are starting to realize that carbon has personality,” says Rodi. “The designer determines what’s going to happen. With carbon, you can have two bikes that look exactly the same but they’re two different bikes. We’re not limited by any pre-formed lugs we have to work around.”

“We’re agnostic about fit systems”

Once a custom bike has been ordered, the build team works with five schematics, each detailed to the millimeter and the half degree of angle. Because the tubes are mitered to the design schematics, and the various components assembled in house any cutting errors are spotted immediately and the molds, too, serve as an additional quality control check as anything cut to the wrong size won’t fit. It’s a quality control process that is in-built throughout the build process. Despite all this attention to detail, Rodi says that “we’re agnostic about fit systems,” different riders have different ways of determining what they want. Parlee builds the bike that is ordered.

Despite a tough economy, Bob Parlee reports that in August the company started to see a rise in orders for custom bikes and “we had the best October ever. For November, we’re ahead of expectations.” One reason for this, Rodi suggests, is that “people are fed up with ordinary bikes.”

Parlee, however, is comfortable with what his company can produce at the moment, “about 30 custom frames a month and 200 production frames.” And he’s not looking to grow too much more than that, though he talks about discussions with a European continental tour team that would raise the company’s profile in Europe. The factory will be re-locating, too, but despite one realtor’s attempt to get him to move to Utah, Bob Parlee says he’s not going anywhere. “This is where we are live and work,” he says.

As well as the Z1 through 5 range of road bikes, Parlee also builds TT, track, and cross bikes, as well as a commuter bike. At the entrance to the shop floor there’s something that Bob Parlee says was his attempt to build a folding bike. Rodi looks at the structure and reflects that “it’s hard to do. It just offends you, the way it looks,” and he’s happy Bob Parlee has abandoned the idea, at least for now. Parlee cycles, he says, is “about staying focused. We don’t want to go down a rat hole.” It’s a philosophy he shares with Bob Parlee who says that, “No, you won’t see a Parlee mountain bike any time soon.” The reason? “Bob doesn’t know enough mountain bikes to improve them,” Rodi says. There’s no suggestion his boss disagrees.

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